Monday, December 15, 2014


Coco House in the coastal town of Kampot, Cambodia
I’m taking an after dinner stroll down an old Asian riverfront. It’s dark and quiet; few are out walking this evening. Along the way I pass old French shop-houses, they’ve been uninhabited for years. Once stylish archways and pillars are now in gradual states of decay. Where bright yellow paint shone, it's now dingy and peeling. These used to be prestigious river side homes, businesses that brought important foreign trade into Cambodia.

This is Kampot, on Cambodia's southern coast. The Prek Kampong River flows through town, emptying into the nearby Gulf of Thailand. Kampot was once Cambodia's principal port. But when the larger port at Sihanoukville opened in the 1950's, this small town's importance rapidly declined.

Now these former buildings of commerce are empty; decaying and dilapidated. Weeds out front grow high through cracks in the sidewalk. 

There are lovely old French colonial buildings in town, but like these many are idle and deteriorating. Some are unoccupied and boarded up.
Dilapidated shop-houses on the river front

Fortunately, Kampot has been reviving. As I stroll further up Riverfront Road, I pass restored restaurants, and cafes. In recent years these have been renovated and reopened. Here diners are seated on sidewalk tables, with palm trees surrounding them. Redevelopment downtown is ongoing, though progress is slow. There are no crowds of customers out tonight; unlike Sihanoukville, Kampot has not capitalized on the rising tourist trade. But that's why some of these foreign folk have come here. It's quiet and serene, with scenic views and fresh seafood.

As little known as Kampot is today, it was once known as a center for one of the world's favorite spices. If anyone wonders what unique and quality product Cambodia provides to the world, the answer is: pepper. Kampot was known for exporting pepper to foreign markets as far back as the 13th century.

“Kampot pepper is the best in the world,” a lady drink seller told me. She’s right, and the Khmers aren't the only people who believe this. So do the French, and of course they know good food. Kampot's pepper was preferred by France’s gourmet chefs. During colonial times, all the best restaurants in Paris had pepper from Kampot on their tables.

Up until the radical Khmer Rouge halted all pepper plantation production, pepper was one of the country’s largest agricultural exports. At the height of production here, the fields of Kampot Province had more than a million peppercorn plants. With the Khmer Rouge gone, local farmers are growing peppercorn again today. Kampot pepper is once again gaining international prestige.
Tasty fish cakes for dinner in Kampot

Further down the river front,  I come to the town's oldest bridge. Crossing the Prek Kampong River, it leads right into the town's center. 

It's dark now and hard to see, but if you look at this bridge in daytime, it’s a rather bizarre looking structure. Parts of the bridge are old, parts are new. As far as construction styles go, there are not one, not two, but three different styles of bridge construction evident here! The oldest section has large arches, with steel support beams rising overhead. But two adjacent sections are basic flat bridges, with two distinct sets of support pillars descending into the riverbed.

This oddity is another legacy of the Khmer Rouge; the old bridge was destroyed during the war. Afterward, rather than tear it all down and rebuild it from scratch, they had to reconstruct it using what remained. I don't blame the engineers, as poor as Cambodia is, it's a wonder they were able to rebuild it at all back during that turbulent time. Having seen the three different building styles, I wonder, was this bridge destroyed more than once? 

Daytime view of the river. The old bridge beyond, destroyed during the war, has been rebuilt.
Winding up my riverfront walk, I go from the old, to brand new. Pounding music and flashing lights announce a disco. I've arrived at “Alaska Super Club”. It’s the only new building I've yet seen in all of Kampot. Cheesy neon signs show figures of female dancers. This gaudy night spot is out of place on this otherwise rustic riverfront. It's a weeknight, so they don't have much of a crowd. I decide not to pay a cover charge for a near empty club, so I turn back. 

I chuckle at the name: 'Alaska Super Club'?? I don’t think I’ll see Sarah Pailin and her brood walking in here anytime soon.

I head back to my hotel, avoiding some stray dogs on the way. Beyond the bridge and the river, loom the nearby Elephant Mountains. The most notable of these, is Bokor Mountain.

I’ve never climbed a mountain before, but I'll be climbing it tomorrow morning.

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